The tumultuous nature of my life in 2017 has, to nobody's real surprise, made me pretty into the idea of launching myself into thru hiking. While I don't have the resources to take a break from my life to wander through multiple states for months at a time, it's been increasingly difficult to convince myself to forgo iconic trails just because I can't complete them in their entirety.
The Wonderland Trail is a ~93 mile route around Mt Rainier that is famous for hyper-saturated fauna, glacier and water filled features, and mountain views. The process for going about thru-hiking the route includes a lottery system maintained by the National Park Service, given the popularity and limited campsite access around the mountain. While I'd wanted to spend 2-3 nights out, I ended up landing one night only to Summerland Camp. The initial plan was to hike from Sunrise Camp, to Summerland, and out of Box Canyon to meet up with my non-backpacking inclined friends for a night at Ohanapecosh Campground with victory hot dogs and campfire bonding.
Unfortunately, the snowpack this year was a serious issue, and without knowing how to properly self-arrest or having done enough snow hiking, plus conflicting schedules, the trip turned into a 1-night out and back solo.
I can't emphasize enough how much snow terrifies me the more that I learn about thru hiking and the Cascade range (and by extension, the range of volcanoes/peaks through Oregon and into the California's Sierra). In my women's hiking groups and the PCT hikers I'd been following I kept seeing accident reports of people breaking through snow, becoming lost, or getting trapped beneath ice in some way. I constantly refreshed weather and trail reports from the area and hoped that the snow would melt out in time for a mid-July trip (it did well enough, thankfully).
I left home around 4 AM to make it to the White River Ranger Station to pick up my permit. I was surprised to find a number of people outside waiting and the process took about an hour. It was really awesome hearing others pick up their climbing permits, figuring out the logistics for Camp Muir, and at least one other person's Wonderland itinerary to stay at Summerland that same night. There are some brave and awesome people out there who summit the mountain, and I contemplated how cool it might be to someday get there.
With permit in hand, I drove on and up to Sunrise Visitor's Center and for a full-on view of Rainier herself. I am continuously struck by her presence and dominance over the skyline from a distance in Seattle, but up close I can't seem to ever stop gazing at that glaciated peak. Parked, locked, and loaded, I start hiking out.
Until almost 2 miles later, when I passed an older ranger who is curious about my large pack. I'd started going counterclockwise, in the wrong direction towards Frozen Lake. Always confirm the parking lot signs, friends! Luckily, the ranger gave me advice on an alternate staring point closer to White River Campground to start hiking from, and I returned to the car to start over. I was disappointed to miss 5 miles of the trail I meant to be on, but relieved that I only had 4 more to go after my blunder.
The initial route up to Summerland meanders through forest, with occasional views of Fryingpan Creek. Bugs were out and very alive by this point in the day, and the sun was blaring through every unshaded portion of the trail. I passed two other backpackers, hiking the whole trail in the opposite direction, but somehow managed to hike a decent portion without coming across any people at all. I hopped over some small streams, and welcomed the rushing glacier water cooling occasional sections.
The upward curve back-and-forth stops briefly at a log bridge to cross the creek. I know it's called a creek, but to me, this was anything but. Creeks are friendly and unassuming places you get to picnic next to. This was a crashing behemoth ready to suck me down into its depths and smash into rocks downstream. I thanked the trail crew who thought to bolt in a handhold to the log and inched my way across, trying to ignore the sudden appearance of a group of teenage day hikers that snuck up behind me while I considered this obvious "deadly foe." Once across, I flung myself onto a rock and drank a half liter of water and let my heart rate settle. The day hikers seemed to agree that the log crossing wasn't worth it, and I left them to proceed up these awesome stairs into the meadows leading up to camp.
Trail stairs are something I've recently learned to appreciate. They mean that human hands hauled up equipment, cut logs, and carefully dug and engineered the dirt for hundreds (thousands) of feet to go up in a very specific way. I really should get out and join a work crew again soon.
The climb was hot and I'd run out of water and streams. I love glacial meadows, but I think I might enjoy water more. I thundered forward without much pausing, driven by thirst and a desire to minimize my mosquito bites.
Until I hit snow. There it was: my mortal enemy. Just gobs of it heaped over my trail, with no option available to circumvent. I could see the melting had begun and some exposed rocks indicated that these piles were structurally compromised. Digging my trekking pole solidly every foot or so, I tried not to slide down and off the trail. I took breaks after each leap and let my heart rate settle. Snow is terrifying.
OK, exception: snow is not terrifying if it's settled in a relatively flat meadow with a distinct sign indicating that you've made it to camp! Glorious camp! I took off my pack and wandered on less intimidating snow patches to pick a site to set up my tent and establish myself before finding the water source the ranger at White River had said would be here. I ended up at site 1, which was a sort of split-level site with just enough flat ground for my small tent to set on.
Water was somewhat complicated. The sun was still high in the sky and it'd been almost 2 hours without drinking at this point. I'd hiked just over 8 miles for the day, and was very tired from getting up so early. I plunked down by the stream after finally locating it (again, wandering in the wrong direction at first). Wait, why was my filter not pumping? I have a small MSR filter that requires you to reverse small rubber pyramids to allow water to flow. For whatever reason, I just could not get it to pump. I hadn't seen another camper yet, I was very hungry for my dinner (which also relied on water), and the only reliable water I had was 4+ miles away in the trunk of my car. Not one of my smarter moments, and not one of my stronger either. My thoughts of self-pity and frustration about how haphazard the day had gone made me feel very inexperienced and frankly stupid for doing this particular trip by myself, and waves of upset just poured out.
A day hiker! She approached me from up the trail, having gone farther up to Panhandle Gap, and offered me her filter. I sobbed a "thank you" and drank and drank. I walked back to my site hydrated and incredibly embarrassed. After setting to the business of making my dinner, I had to laugh. I didn't have a windscreen, and of course, mountains in the evening are windy. I curved my body on the ground to keep the flame for my precious Annie's Mac & Cheese going. It was absurd how the process of making dinner had taken almost an hour, and I was near-delirious when I inhaled it in less than 5 minutes.
Summerland Camp in the sunset is truly gorgeous. My full belly and I waddled to view the group side (that includes an impressive stone built shelter), some ways up the trail before hitting thick snow patches, and down a secondary trail that seemed to go into nowhere. I clicked away on my camera and was able to finally breathe easy. All smiles, my sleeping bag was welcome comfort as the temperature dropped. Until, of course, when my pillow deflated twice in the night. Just the way of the road, I guess!
I awoke early the next morning, apprehensive about crunching across those same snow patches in their refrozen state. Oddly enough, this time it felt like a little victory leaping my way over them. As I arrived the log bridge, I even felt myself bounce and lift upward. I confidently strode across, without gripping the handhold. It's amazing how things can turn in 24 (or 12) hours. An upbeat podcast and playlist can soften the experience too.
This overnight had a message: if it's going to go wrong, it will, but what are you going to do about it? Sometimes it's digging your heel into frozen snow, redoubling your miles, or sucking up some tears in front of a stranger. Ultimately: mistakes are just as valuable to the experience as "pure" successes. Backpacking for me is turning itself into a way to push myself out of my own preconceived mental space.
And I'm definitely coming back for the whole thing. Some day. I hope soon!